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Mental fitness tips for optimal aging

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In the spirit of Mental Health Week (May 1-7), the District Mental Health Services for Older Adults Program of the Canadian Mental Health Association—Fort Frances Branch encourages adopting a mental fitness approach to aging.

Mental fitness refers to a state of mental well-being that can result in a positive sense of how a person feels, thinks, and acts.

Although it is not possible to control every factor that affects health as we age, many are in our hands.

Some keys to mental fitness include:

  • Social activity

Your mother told you an apple a day would keep the doctor away, but did you know enjoying a card game or having a chat over a cup of tea can have the same effect?

Being socially connected is a key factor in optimal aging, and in overall health and well-being. For instance, being social improves your brain performance, including your memory, and lowers your risk of developing dementia.

Spending time with people improves your mood and actually lowers your risk of depression.

As well, spending quality time with people who matter to us, whether they're friends, grandkids, elderly relatives, or through volunteering, can support our mental health and theirs.

  • Physical activity

Staying physically active is good for your brain and your body. Research shows that physical activity is a strong promoter of neuroplasticity-your brain's ability to grow and form new connections.

We now know that brains continue to grow, develop, and make connections well into senior years.

The mind and the body are intrinsically linked. When we improve our physical health, we tend to experience greater mental and emotional well-being.

Regular exercise or activity can have a positive impact on mental and emotional health, relieve stress, improve memory, and help us sleep better.

  • Mind your mental health

As we age, we are more likely to experience emotional trauma associated with loss. This can include the deaths of people who are close to us but also other losses, such as our own health and/or our independence.

For many aging adults, dealing with the loneliness caused by multiple losses can lead to a diminished investment in life.

Acknowledging and expressing these feelings is important to mental fitness. Talking to a friend, family member, health-care professional, or support group can be beneficial.

  • Lifelong learning

When it comes to our brain, the notion of “use it or lose it” turns out to be true. The brain can continue to grow, develop, and make connections throughout our lifespan.

When you challenge your brain with new and effortful activity, you help to build your “cognitive reserve.”

Invest in your brain by keeping it active. Engaging in new and meaningful activities that challenge our creativity and productivity include reading, gardening, sewing, baking, puzzles, painting, drawing, writing, crafts, or playing an instrument.

Continuing to change and learn as you age actually can improve brain function over time and lower your risk of developing dementia.

  • Positive thinking

Only 25 percent of your life expectancy is due to your family genes; much more is due to your outlook and lifestyle.

Positive thinking means paying attention to what you are grateful for, and noticing the meaning and purpose in your life.

An optimistic outlook makes healthy habits more likely to grow-and this combination is the special formula for optimal aging.

  • Know when to seek professional help

Assess your mental fitness regularly. If you've made consistent efforts to improve your mental and emotional health, and still aren't functioning optimally, it may be time to seek professional help.

Input from a caring professional often can help to motivate us to do more for ourselves than we're able to do alone.

Editor's note: Debra Widgren is a Geriatric Mental Health Worker with the District Mental Health Services for Older Adults Program here.

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